Film Studies: The hand on the butt thing? Oh, you know, that's just movies...

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The Independent Culture

Last week, in his attempts to stay floating (and in his need to talk about anything except his possible infatuation with Hitler as an Austrian kid) Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the game away. Confronted with a thorough accounting in the Los Angeles Times of six women he had variously touched, groped and fondled in the course of an ongoing business career, the lovable hunk (well, Maria Shriver still loves him) laughed it off and said it was just what happened on "those rowdy movie sets".

Imagine the scene in a Santa Monica home as the husband (an accountant) begins to gear up for his next six-week stint of house-husbanding. His wife is a movie make-up artist, and tomorrow she's off to Hawaii for location shooting on the new YXZ picture. She is a make-up artist, whose healthy income is reliant on making others look good, so she's not a knockout - not a movie beauty. Oh, but she's darned pretty and all the stars remember her. "You going to make me look good again, Marcie?" they ask and they stroke the butt that is packed tight inside her jeans. No, she doesn't say, "Get your hands off, asshole." She grins and says, "Well, gee, it's just a job, isn't it?" The accountant reads the story in The Times and, without even looking up, he calls to his wife - she is packing - "Weren't you on an Arnold picture?"

"Was I, hon?"

"True Lies, wasn't it?"

"Uh-huh."

"Wasn't that where you got the bonus...?"

"Oh yeah," she says, "and we got Steven's braces."

"What's he like?"

"Arnold? Oh, he's a gentleman. He's married to a Kennedy, you know."

"That's what worries me."

I'm making this up, of course, but I've heard the tone of smothered anxiety, the resignation that goes with the deal. It's maybe the last hint of droit de seigneur-ism in a modern culture.

I think it's altogether sensible to adopt Arnold's blasé attitude. Life on location is different. You can take 200 people out of modern Los Angeles - which really is a very hip, cool, modern, sophisticated place - and send them off on location, and you're back in The Dark Ages. All of a sudden, a new ethos prevails: we are in the dream business, people. They are making a dream, and to make it as sweet as possible, many bonds, ties and rules from the real world are put aside when they check in at the hotel.

Everyone on a movie needs to feel important, desirable and "alive", and so they tend to fall in love with one another, or into bed, or wherever. Every location has its own sub-text. It's very feudal. You don't really get into any action until your superior chain of command is "occupied". At the same time, it's not out of line for a major star to be hot and heavy with the guy or the guys who are handling the horses - the wranglers. Drivers are needed on a film location at any time of day, and drivers have to be utterly reliable: they never see the back seat action; they never recollect who was crying outside which room at 3.30 in the morning.

It can get wild and steamy, but it's inconsequential. If a spouse brings the children to the location for a long week-end, normal Angeleno relationships are resumed and no one says a word. When the movie is over, everyone abides by the wisdom that it was just one of those things, and who knows, catch you next time around?

You can tell yourself that it's all part of the climate: if XYZ has a six-page love scene with ABC, how the hell are they going to be any good at it if they don't get into it a little bit? But, then, if they're professional - and at $11m and $7.5m for the job (guess which one gets which), they'd better be - don't they know it's just pretending? They do. That's why Arnie took the attitude that it didn't mean anything. And it doesn't, except for the fact that nearly every movie location is a throwback to the male-dominated sexual codes of the 19th century, where most guys feel they have a right to touch up a passing woman, and where there's no end of gay-bashing talk (even if XYZ himself is also screwing YYY every night).

The best protection is to be married to someone like Maria Shriver, raised a Kennedy and therefore aware since infancy that there was a whole lot going on in the big house that nobody mentioned in polite company, and which didn't mean anything, except that some people are born and raised to believe they can get away with anything.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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